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The early years matter most, but good childcare still eludes us

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Author: 
Toynbee, Polly
Publication Date: 
2 Jun 2015
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Are we nearly there yet? No, the journey towards good universal childcare and nursery education is proving long and winding. But one of the encouraging surprises of the last election was the political arms race in free childcare promises.

First Labour pledged to raise free childcare for three- and four-year-olds from 15 to 25 hours. Then the Lib Dems leapfrogged that, offering 20 free hours, but starting right from the end of maternity leave. At the last moment, the Tories trumped it with a 30-hour offer. Yesterday David Cameron brought forward a pilot to September 2016.

What’s impressive in this broad political enthusiasm for early years is that it scores pretty low in voters’ spending priorities: too few have under-fives at any one time. Parents soon forget the guilt-ridden time of holding down a job, scraping together childcare money and finding a place, let alone somewhere good enough for their child’s most vital years. So will the government stump up the money to cover these extra hours – and improve the low-quality, low-qualifications patchwork of inadequate nurseries to match their promise?

Social mobility and equal opportunity – every politician preaches these pieties. They know the incontrovertible evidence that the earliest years matter most. Yet changing education priorities to reflect that evidence defeats them: we spend in inverse ratios to the value added to the child. Why spend most on university students already destined for success while too many toddlers are merely warehoused by minimum-waged semi-trained nursery assistants who themselves failed at school?

Labour was the pioneer in 1997, adding the missing cradle in the “cradle to grave” welfare state. They brought free nurseries to three- and four-year-olds when the Tories still argued that under-fives were a family and not a state responsibility. Labour opened 3,500 Sure Start children’s centres as community hubs: the best in poorest areas had childcare, health visitors, speech and language therapy, parenting classes and help finding jobs. But councils suffering severe cuts have already closed or merged 763: half will close more.

Some state-maintained nurseries survive in some poor districts, beacon centres for training nursery teachers, scoring the highest Ofsted scores. But they are under threat. A famous leader in a very deprived patch, the 40-year-old Maxilla nursery under the Westway will be shut by Kensington and Chelsea Council next month, losing 40 places and its children’s garden, although the new Kensington MP, Victoria Borwick, is a governor. Private nurseries usually score far less well with Ofsted, with few opened in poor areas, as they need parents who can pay fees to top up the inadequate state subsidy. Most only survive by charging fees for hours above the free 15, but now 30 hours will be free, unless the state pays significantly more per hour, they risk collapse.

If only Labour had started out with enough money and a simple system. But, afraid of upsetting the existing mediocre private sector, they grafted tax credits on the top. Cameron has announced a funding review before starting his extra free hours, but there is scant sign of a radical change to unravel the bizarre complexity of funding mechanisms.

Imagine you’re a parent needing childcare, and follow this madness if you can: if you’re in the 40% lowest income bracket, you can have 15 hours of free care when your child is two. At three and four, you can get 15 hours free – but you will only get Cameron’s extra 15 free hours if you both work at least eight hours a week. (That excludes the chaotic non-working families with mental and other problems whose children need most help.) Your overall childcare costs will be paid by the state up to 85% of cost if you are low-paid enough to get universal credit if/when it comes in. Right now you just get 70%.

If you earn above that level, between £30,000 and £40,000 as a couple, the 85% subsidy drops to a 20% tax relief instead, a killer cliff-edge drop costing you thousands a year for the crime of earning a little extra overtime. Tax relief goes to families earning up to £300,000, despite acute shortage of nursery funding.

Try costing this cat’s cradle of shifting reliefs, warns the Family and Childcare Trust. Both DWP and HMRC must check your status and place and hours of your childcare: the admin costs are mind-boggling. In this regard, Sweden was Labour’s intended direction of travel. I joined a ministerial fact-finder to see how universal care can be provided. Simply, is the answer. Parents have a right to an excellent local free childcare centre, where half the staff are graduates. How far we are from that. The UK has among the most expensive and variable childcare, resulting in the fewest working mothers in the OECD.

This month marks exactly 50 years since US president Lyndon Johnson founded Head Start, the centrepiece of his Great Society. Young children, he said “are the inheritors of poverty’s curse, not its creators”. That breakthrough early-years programme for deprived children and their parents was so popular it lasted through all the Republican years, though shrunken and of erratic quality. Marking the anniversary, some of the 32m Head Start children have emerged to thank it. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, recalls sitting on the porch of “our little shotgun shack in Ames, Texas” with his mother, when a woman approached to offer a Head Start place. “It changed my life. It allowed me to imagine, to think creatively about the world beyond my environment and what my life might be.”

The study that caught Labour’s eye followed a group of children on a highly structured Head Start-type scheme in Ohio, comparing them with a control group. They didn’t soar up aspirational ladders, but two intensive years of pre-school cognitive and emotional support protected many from disaster. By the age of 40, 46% fewer Head Start children had been to jail, fewer girls had unplanned babies, fewer drew welfare or needed mental treatment, while more stayed on at school and had jobs. Wider studies suggested less dramatic results when measuring less intensive schemes.

Everyone knows what works; all the evidence has said it for years. Cameron’s review needs to look again at the whole fragile, inadequate nursery system. By school, it’s often too late.

-reprinted from The Guardian 

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Entered Date: 
3 Jun 2015
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